Is the UMC a Franchisor?


In my previous post I shared the recognition that United Methodist Communications and other agencies are involved in creating a national “brand” for the United Methodist Church based in the language of marketing more than theological identity. I’ve had at least one person suggest that in fact the phrases I mentioned represent “brand statements” rather than being a specific brand. I understand the technical distinctions, but believe that the way that the band statements are used represents a business oriented mode of understanding that work together to create the brand.

Perhaps a better question is not whether the UMC is a brand, but how that “brand” functions in the world. That leads me into thinking about today’s question: does the general church, including UMCom, see itself as a franchisor servicing franchisees, or are we something very different?

This is a good starting point for I have heard denominational executives used the franchising model as a metaphor for connectionalism. “We’re like McDonalds,” these folks say. “We have a national brand with local branches…”

On the surface, there are some similarities. According to Merriam-Webster, a franchise is “…the right or license granted to an individual or group to market a companies goods and services in a particular territory.” A franchise is different from a “chain-store” which are “…retail outlets that share a brand and usually have standardized business methods and practices.” In the case of a franchise, the franchisor grants the right for a person or a group to represent their brand in a specific area. The individual or group “owns” the business, but they pay certain franchising fees in order to use the brand. Theoretically this is supposed to lead to a greater investment on the part of the folks at the local level, since they are owners of the business. While each franchise is individually owned, part of the franchising agreement normally requires that the business meets certain standards in conducting their business, such as logo conventions, building specifications, and product standards. While a chain store involves centralized management in which a central office makes all the decisions, franchises are connected to a national brand but decisions are made by the owners on the ground at the local level.

There are some who might suggest that the UMC is in fact a chain operation, with our Bishops and the folks in Nashville pulling the strings, but I think we can agree that there is very little centralized management of our communion. Rather, others argue, the UMC is set up as a franchising operation. When a group of persons who make up a church decide that they want to be United Methodist, they sign a charter (a franchising agreement) which grants them the right to use the national brand (the cross and flame logo) and gets them access to resources available from the national organizations. For that right they pay an annual apportionment (a franchising fee) which guarantees them the appointment of a pastor (paid from their own funds) and other benefits. Part of the franchising relationship includes the agreement to live according to the Book of Discipline (the corporate standards and practices) which supposedly creates a more uniform experience among franchisees . . . uh . . . congregations.

Yep, there are good reasons to view the UMC as a franchising operation. We of course drape that in the language of “connectionalism” (something that I DO believe can be interpreted theologically) but functionally we operate along the franchise model, which then leads the national agencies to assume that their programs, logos, and marketing campaigns will be universally adopted by the franchisees. The desire to plaster the ReThink Church and the “People of the UMC” statements all over every resource is driven in this belief that the national church’s job is to create a national brand identity for the franchisees.

But here is the problem, and the difference that makes us very different from a traditional franchisor/franchisee.

One of the core tenets of franchising operations, especially in the retail space is the uniformity of experience. The reason for the restrictive nature of the franchising agreements is to create a national brand in which consumers share in a common experience no matter the location of the store or restaurant. All of us pretty much know that if we enter a McDonalds that we will encounter a common menu that is consistent throughout the nation, and that a Big Mac in California pretty much tastes like a Big Mac in Louisiana . . . or in Russia for that matter. This uniformity of experience is key to the success of the franchise, especially for the franchisor, who can guarantee a common set of experiences from their franchisees, thus ensuring the success of the brand. While there are some franchising agreements that are more flexible than others (organizations such as Subway which allows for a variety of building types, but maintains a common decorating theme) the goal is to create a common expectation for the franchise brand, which then allows for greater efficiency in advertising since nationally oriented campaigns can be created in the knowledge that the customer experience will be pretty much the same regardless of location.

That is where the United Methodist Church falls down, for the fact is that beyond our political life together, there really is no uniformity in experience across the church. In example, while the church I recently served and the church I currently serve are similar in size and demographics, there are radical differences in the worship lives of the two churches, influenced by differences in facilities, differing backgrounds (one rural, one more village oriented), different economic status, and varied personal expectations of what it means to be Methodist. These congregations are radically different from what  would be experienced at the big mega-church out in Brentwood, and that congregation, while maintaining a sense of “high” worship, is radically different from our West End UMC, which is located in close proximity to Vanderbilt. Beyond stylistic differences, there are huge variations in theological perspectives and approaches to faith with some congregations able to embrace “open hearts and doors,” but whose minds are pretty closed; while others are open to everything . . . “as long as those who visit conform to OUR expectations.” One never knows what one is going to find in a particular United Methodist church, totally blowing up any hope of an efficient national marketing campaign that attempts to suggest a brand consistency of any kind.

I think this is seen in the approaches of many current “successful” congregations in how they approach their graphic design and congregational branding. While there are those congregations that embrace the cross and flame as their central image (The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection is one of these) more and more I see individual congregations creating their own logos that reflect their own image of who they are. They are, in fact, creating a separate brand that may have connection to the United Methodist Church as a whole, but which is not consistent with the national imaging campaign. It is am attempt to create a symbology for the congregation that is focused in the local reality, not our connection to the national franchisor. And this symbology creates a unique identity for those congregations that may or may not have any connection to the national group.

The more I think about this the more I begin to get a sense that what we are is less of a national brand that is useful and worthwhile in helping persons to access our church, and more of an affiliation of multiple brands that are rooted at the local level. The general church nor the annual conference is not a franchisor in any traditional sense for there is really no attempt to enforce uniformity of experience, nor would we want to do so. For the most part we have tended to suggest that the diversity of experience in the UMC is in fact a virtue which allows many different types of people access to the throne room of God.

In some ways we are more like a multinational like Proctor and Gamble. Proctor and Gamble is a large umbrella company composed of many different brands. While they will occasionally trade on the Proctor and Gamble image, in fact more often than not they are engaged in lifting up the specific brand, such as Tide, All, or Cheer, and wanting their corporate image to fade into the background. P&G would prefer that what we remember is not their name, but the name of the product. Their name may be on the box, but it’s usually in 6 point type, hidden on a side panel.

Unfortunately, the some folks at the General Church level in leadership in our church fail to recognize that the basic unit of ministry is the local church and that everything done at that level must point toward the local church as the primary revealer of God to the world, not the institution behind it, created to be a support rather than a hindrance. Thus we prominently include brand statements and logos so that the national brand will be remembered. But when we do so, we create false expectations about what folks should expect, expectations that can never be met, nor should be.

4 thoughts on “Is the UMC a Franchisor?

  1. Jay,

    I think your sense that the franchise model does not adequately describe the UMC, even in the US, is accurate.

    What I think this implies is that the UMC is, de facto though not de jure, congregationalist.

    I think that is increasingly the case, in fact, whether we like to admit that “officially” or not.

    P&G is a good analogy. (All, though is not a P&G brand– it’s from The Sun Products Corporation. My father was a chemical engineer with P&G, so I may be a tad sensitive to that. Try Crest or Oil of Olay or Gillette or Duracell instead– all P&G brands).

    It’s a good analogy because a major element of P&G’s strategy over the years has been to create wholly owned subsidiaries. Crest, Ivory and most of the shampoos and detergents are in fact P&G products. P&G is the “distributor” of Oil of Olay, Gillette, Duracell, and a variety of other companies P&G purchased to market under their umbrella, while the companies themselves still function much as they had.

    However, we are not de jure congregationalist at all. We are church at multiple levels all at once, none, at least in our polity, considered “the be all and end all” of church life, but each, in its own way, a representative of what our church is and does. Congregations remain, legally and materially, creatures of the conferences. The conferences are, legally, creatures of General Conference (so, unlike some dioceses of The Episcopal Church have tried to do in recent years, there is absolutely no legal claim an Annual Conference can make for leaving the UMC and retaining ANY of its real assets at all).

    So the General Conference and the Conference have strong legal interest (and so can also be involved in escalating liability cases!) in what congregations do and do not do in ways that intentionally congregationalist polities do not.

    As for General Agencies– we, too, are creatures of the General Conference, which alone directs what our work is, and does so very directly. To the degree that our work involves either establishing or promoting “brand standards” that is not because the General Agencies themselves decide that’s our work– it’s because General Conference tells us it is. Or at least it is supposed to be that. My job, for example, fulfills Paragraph 1114.1 of the 2008 Book of Discipline (and several before it) which calls for GBOD (and my office, in particular) to help establish and promulgate the established standards for worship and ritual in this denomination. I do that work not based on my own preferences, but based on the standards already established by General Conference in the Ritual (which General Conference also establishes) and the teaching documents about our ritual and worship theology (such as By Water and the Spirit and This Holy Mystery– both developed with support of the office I now hold, but not written by this office, nor made binding by this office– again, that was the work of General Conference). So it’s not that GBOD is telling everyone else what the standards SHOULD be. It’s that we help the denomination support the standards IT has set based on input we help solicit (such as the study committees for BWAS and THM, which our staff did not DIRECT but rather supported).

    Likewise, the General Board of Church and Society does not lobby for particular legislation or social issues because IT wants to do this or IT thinks the denomination should. No. It lobbies or creates advocacy work SOLELY for and on the basis of what General Conference tells it to do via the Discipline and Book of Resolutions.

    So… kudos for the analysis early on, and the analogy with P&G (to a degree). But not so much for suggesting that a) we are ultimately congregationalist or that b) the General Agencies work has meaning or value ONLY as it pertains to local congregations. The congregations are not our “ultimate customer” at ANY level. The mission of the whole Church is.

    I’m not sure there’s a business analogy out there that quite describes us. And I’m not sure we really need to have one. We are what we are– a church that operates at several levels, each providing a different kind of systems to support NOT just congregations, but the accomplishment of the overall mission of the WHOLE church– in and across all of these levels– making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

    1. Taylor, maybe I wasn’t clear enough, but I agree that I don’t think that the UMC represents a franchise model. I am also not arguing for a business model, believing that to do so ignores the theological realities of who we are. What I AM trying to say is that our national marketing efforts are indeed based in a business analogy and I think the powers that be (whoever they are at the agency that shall not be named) have FUNCTIONED as if we were a franchising operation.

      I too agree that the ideal of the UMC is that we should be considering the mission of the entire body. However, the functional reality is that isn’t happening. If we were considering the mission of the whole our Bishops and cabinets would be more aggressive in supervising local congregations and engaging in serious congregational accountability regarding their ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

      Please understand that I have no desire to be congregationalist — I’ve lived in that world and see significant problems with that approach. I have posted here in the past that I think that our connectional model, when truly lived out, can represent a prophetic voice speaking against the rampant individualism of our day.

      By the way, where I am headed with this series is to suggest that the P&G model, while again inadequate to describe a faith community, in fact is more consistent from a marketing perspective with how we truly function.

      Please hear me out. I understand that Boards and Agencies are guided in their work by the General Conference. But I worked for 13 years inside an agency and know that there is a lot of flexibility and interpretation in how those mandates are lived out. UMCom COULD carry out their mission by providing resources that assist annual conferences and local congregations to better carry out their mission through means that adapt to the local context. Instead they create a national campaign assuming that the United Methodist experience in Seattle, Washington is the same as in Frog Jump, Tennessee. We both know that those two experiences are likely to be very different, which (from a marketing perspective) creates many problems.

  2. Jay,

    Not being part of the staff of United Methodist Communications, I cannot comment on the reasons that agency appears to have chosen to do a church-wide campaign, or “one size fits all” as you suggest.

    I can tell you that the work I do in worship does NOT presume one size fits all or that all contexts are alike. Rather, especially in the worship planning helps I write, I keep pointing worship planners to consider what their own context is, and, based on the common platforms (platforms– not locked down final texts) of our ritual, develop worship that expresses our common ritual fully in the idiom of the indigenous context. The Open Source Liturgy Project that I lead is doing similar work on developing new ritual resources– not BY GBOD, but BY the people of the various cultural, ethnic, and contextual communities that compose not only the UMC, but also eight other denominations with whom we have partnered in the project so far.

    I say all that to say this– not all General Agencies think of themselves or act as if we have the one right set of answers or vision for all circumstances. Some may, or at least appear to do so… but I hope you and your readers will see and know that there are some of us who are doing pretty much what I think you are suggesting we should be doing already.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards
    Director of Worship Resources
    GBOD

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